KL: A His­to­ry of the Nazi Con­cen­tra­tion Camps

Niko­laus Wachsmann
  • Review
By – January 6, 2016

Although Indi­ana Press has pub­lished sev­er­al vol­umes in con­junc­tion with the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Muse­um on the Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps, it is the con­tention of Niko­laus Wachs­mann, a pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Euro­pean his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don and the author of the prizewin­ning Hitler’s Pris­ons, that it is impos­si­ble to see how all the dif­fer­ent fea­tures of the camps fit togeth­er. Wachs­mann argues that eighty years after the found­ing of Dachau, there is no sin­gle com­plete account of the con­cen­tra­tion camps, and attempts to rec­ti­fy this glar­ing gap in our under­stand­ing of the KL in this indis­pens­able vol­ume span­ning over 800 pages.

The first of the esti­mat­ed 980 con­cen­tra­tion camps — not includ­ing the approx­i­mate 30,000 slave labor camps — was Dachau, which was oper­a­tional in 1933. Wachs­mann notes that the ear­ly camps like Dachau interned not only crim­i­nals but pri­mar­i­ly polit­i­cal ene­mies of the Third Reich with the objec­tive to reha­bil­i­tate” those who opposed the Nazis. Ini­tial­ly, Dachau was a dis­or­ga­nized, bru­tal camp whose guards were unre­strained in their treat­ment of Jews, polit­i­cal dis­si­dents, and oth­ers. Until Theodore Eicke became com­man­dant of the camps, the sadis­tic treat­ment of Dachau’s pris­on­ers shocked many even in the Nazi hier­ar­chy. Appoint­ed by Hein­rich Himm­ler, Eicke brought orga­ni­za­tion to the camp, although the bru­tal­i­ty con­tin­ued in order­ly terror.

By 1934, some in the Third Reich found that camps like Dachau had real­ized their objec­tives and pro­ceed­ed to release thou­sands of pris­on­ers. Himm­ler, how­ev­er, believed that the real mis­sion of the KL went beyond pun­ish­ing crim­i­nals and ene­mies of the regime. An all-out war against the Reich’s ene­mies could not be won with tra­di­tion­al meth­ods and weapons, and the nation, Himm­ler declared, had to be placed on a war-foot­ing. Like sol­diers on the bat­tle­field, the troops fight­ing against the inner ene­my at home must act beyond the law.” This meant the per­ma­nent incar­cer­a­tion in con­cen­tra­tion camps of all indi­vid­u­als des­ig­nat­ed as harm­ful to the nation. The list includ­ed not only Jews and com­mu­nists but Freema­sons, homo­sex­u­als, nuns, priests, Jeho­vah Wit­ness­es, and aso­cials” as well. With Hitler’s approval, Himm­ler cre­at­ed a Nazi appa­ra­tus act­ing on a per­ma­nent state of emer­gency. Once World War II com­menced, Himm­ler declared that the nation was in imme­di­ate dan­ger from shad­owy ene­mies with­in Ger­many who threat­ened every­thing the Nazism stood for, from pro­tect­ing the ide­ol­o­gy of racial hygiene” to con­fronting the forces of orga­nized sub-human­i­ty” who, in Himmler’s words, should not be viewed as humans of our species.” Thus, in the mid-thir­ties the KL grew in num­bers, pop­u­la­tion, and ter­ror, sub­se­quent­ly lead­ing to the cre­ation of the slave labor and death camps.

Wachs­mann suc­ceeds in detail­ing evo­lu­tion of the camps in a read­able man­ner. KL: A His­to­ry of the Nazi Con­cen­tra­tion Camps should take its place as the stan­dard work on the subject.

Relat­ed Content:

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

Discussion Questions